By Melissa Hart on September 16, 2021 in Travel
Embarking on a road trip can be a fun, low-key travel option. With gorgeous coastal highways and nostalgic, attraction-filled routes across the U.S., you can experience plenty by car, van, or rental camper. In this article, we’ll describe some of the most scenic, picturesque road trips across the country — adventures that stretch beyond iconic Route 66. We’ll share must-see museums, outdoor recreational adventures, unique shopping experiences, and remarkable restaurants so you can plan a thrilling adventure and hit the road for a memorable vacation.
Ready, Set, Sightsee
Here are our top destinations around the country.
Massachusetts Route 6A
Nicknamed “Old King’s Highway,” this 62-mile National Scenic Byway stretches between Cape Cod and Provincetown. In the town of Sandwich, shop for books and catch a live author event at Titcomb’s Bookshop. In Barnstable, kayak or take a guided tour at Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary.
Wander through author/illustrator Edward Gorey’s historic house in Yarmouth, then visit the Cape Cod Museum of Art in Dennis. Enjoy an ice cream cone at The Brewster Store, or sample the ales and lagers at Hog Island Beer Co. in Orleans.
Walk the 1.2-mile Atlantic White Cedar Swamp Trail in Wellfleet, then head for Provincetown. While you’re there, visit the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum and explore the Province Lands Visitors Center. Enjoy seafood at The Lobster Pot, or — if you’re looking for something different — don’t miss the authentic tacos and enchiladas at Chach.
Road tip: You’ll find many buildings along this route listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Research ahead of time and plan which structures you’d most like to see.
The southernmost section of Highway 1 stretches 127 miles from Miami to Key West. It’s festooned with bridges over the Atlantic, Florida Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico. Prepare to be amazed by the Seven Mile Bridge, which stretches across open water, and marvel at the tiny islands that punctuate your journey. While you could spend just four hours driving the Overseas Highway, you’d miss all the fun. Instead, plan to spend at least eight hours.
Check out the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, and dive in shallow water at Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary in Big Pine Key. Hungry? Try the empanadas and flatbread tacos at Fernandez the Bull Cuban Grill in Key Largo or coconut shrimp paired with a Key Lime Colada at the Island Fish Co. Restaurant and Tiki Bar in Marathon. Don’t miss the pulled pork sandwich and grilled jerk chicken at Key West’s Pepper Pot Island Café. While you’re in the area, plan a visit to Mallory Square at sunset to watch musicians and other performers entertain locals and visitors.
Road tip: Rush hour in Miami is between 7 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. on weekdays, so get on the road before then. Note that the maximum speed limit is 55 mph on bridges, and 45 mph on islands.
Pacific Coast Highway
This 600-mile road from San Francisco to San Diego takes 10 hours if you’re speeding straight through, but why would you when there’s so much to see and do? Stop for a meal at quirky Saturn Café in Santa Cruz or at Nepenthe in Big Sur and drink in the stunning ocean views from the restaurant’s patio.
In Cambria, check out the Piedras Blancas Friends of the Elephant Seal Rookery. Aquatic mammals appear on the beaches there most frequently from December to March. Need a colorful place to sleep midway along your journey? Check out the themed rooms at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, and while you’re in the area, go whale watching in nearby Avila Beach. Further south, stroll along the famed Santa Monica Pier, and window-shop and dine on Third Street Promenade. In San Diego, don’t miss Balboa Park, where you’ll find 17 museums, the botanical gardens, and the San Diego Zoo.
Road tip: Drive north to south so the Pacific is always on your right side. This route makes for easy pullouts when you want to stop and take photos of California’s mesmerizing coast.
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive
Michigan’s 7.4-mile drive through Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore takes you past glacier-sculpted dunes and beech-maple forests. Stop to take photos of the covered bridge and capture the scenery from several overlooks, including one with a sweeping view of Lake Michigan.
Enjoy a picnic at Picnic Mountain or North Bar Lake Overlook. Need to stretch your legs? Amble along the 1.4-mile Cottonwood Hiking Trail, which loops through the dunes with views of Glen Lake and the Dune Climb. If you’re up for a challenging bicycle ride, rent wheels and take a guided tour. In Empire, savor pizza or a meatball sub at Empire Village Inn. Afterward, pick up a box of truffles or specialty candy bars at Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate in Empire.
Road Tip: Before your trip, check out this virtual tour of 12 key stops on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, courtesy of the National Park Service.
Road to Hana
This 64.4-mile drive that connects Kahului to Hana in east Maui is legendary for the scenery — think white-sand beaches, bamboo forests, and bucolic waterfalls — as well as for hair-raising twists and turns. Stop by Maui’s Garden of Eden at mile marker 10 to wander 26 acres of trails with stunning ocean views. At that same location, swim in the Waikamoi Stream and Waterfalls, the second largest waterfall and pool on the island.
At mile marker 29, visit the Nahiku Marketplace to browse art galleries, gift shops, and roadside eateries. Stop by Auntie Pearl’s Coconut Treats for a bag of homemade candy, and pick up a slice (or two) of banana bread at Aunt Sandy’s, a delicacy that Gordon Ramsey featured on his National Geographic program “Unchartered.” When you get to Hana, visit Huli Huli Chicken for authentic Hawaiian barbecue.
Road tip: Plan to be on the road by 7:30 a.m. to avoid rush hour, and pack snacks, water, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper as amenities can be hard to find.
The Finger Lakes
The Finger Lakes in upstate New York include 11 lakes and numerous waterfalls. With a map of the region, you can customize your route through state parks, historical small towns, and vineyards. Stroll and shop in Seneca Falls or Canandaigua. Paddle a kayak around one of the lakes, or pack a picnic and go for a hike.
Hungry? Try the West African peanut soup and plantain dumplings at Asempe Kitchen in Syracuse or the Vietnamese salad and steak at Saigon Kitchen in Ithaca.
Road tip: Planning on a wine tasting? Most wineries in the region are open year-round. They’re busiest in the summer and fall, so consider visiting off-season for more personalized service.
The Great River Road
This 3,000-mile scenic route takes drivers along the Mississippi River through 10 different states, from Northern Minnesota to the tip of Louisiana. Though you can drive it in 36 hours, consider devoting a week to exploring historical sites, state parks, and unusual eateries.
Walk across the headwaters of the river at Itasca State Park in Minnesota, then take a tour and sample the beer at Wisconsin’s Potosi Brewing Company. In Iowa, explore the river by kayak at the Mississippi River Eco Tourism Center. In Tennessee, make sure to visit Big River Crossing, the river’s longest public pedestrian bridge. Learn about the history of Jackson Square in New Orleans, and visit the St. Louis Cathedral. Sample authentic Creole soul food at Li’l Dizzy’s Café, and relish the gorgeous cookies and cakes at the pop-up local favorite Radical Joy Bakery.
Road tip: To avoid extreme temperatures and inclement weather, plan your trip for autumn or late spring.
The Turquoise Trail
Named for turquoise, an opaque blue-green mineral found in the area, this 50-mile route along Highway 14 between Albuquerque and Santa Fe takes you past mining towns turned Southwest cultural centers. Start with a ride on the Sandia Peak Arial Tramway, a 15-minute ride up to the 10,378-foot crest of the Sandia Mountains. Hike around the Tijeras Pueblo Archaeological Site near Albuquerque, and savor a snack or a full meal on the patio of the Indian Pueblo Kitchen.
Visit the Casa Grande Trading Post in Los Cerrillos, a 28-room adobe building, to purchase jewelry hand-made from sterling silver and turquoise and peruse the Cerrillos Turquoise Mining Museum. Walk through the small town of Madrid to see neighborhood art, shop for vintage boots at Cowgirl Red, and then stop at the Mine Shaft Tavern for one of their famous green-chili cheeseburgers. Make sure to visit the eclectic collection of Americana and miniatures at Tinkertown Museum in Sandia Park. In Santa Fe, observe a Native American Feast Day, then sample indigenous cuisine at Red Mesa.
Road tip: Start with a full tank of gas (and a full stomach) as there are no fuel stations in the more rural parts of the region.
Trail Ridge Road
This 48-mile stretch between Estes Park and Grand Lake in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park offers magnificent forests, fields of wildflowers, and spectacular views. During a 4,000-foot climb, ponderosa pine and aspen give way to fir and spruce, and then to alpine tundra. Pull over for photos of snowcapped peaks at Many Parks Curve, Forest Canyon Overlook, and Fairview Curve.
Hike the Alpine Ridge Trail, 0.6 miles round trip, from the Alpine Visitor Center, and reward yourself with a sandwich or dessert at Café at Trail Ridge. If you’re in the mood for a longer hike, try the 8.2-mile round trip Milner Pass Trail from Poudre Lake to the Alpine Visitor Center. Depending on which direction you take, try the ceviche and fajitas at Casa Grande Mexican Restaurant in Estes Park, or enjoy burgers and fries at the family-owned Grand Lake Grill.
Road tip: Bring a jacket and hat no matter what time of year you go. Temperatures at the peak of Trail Ridge Road can be 30 degrees colder than at Grand Lake and Estes Park, so prepare for chilly, windy conditions.
More Scenic Drives
Looking for other beautiful drives? Consider these five additional picturesque road trips.
- Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile route from Virginia to North Carolina
- Bluebonnet Trail, a 40-mile route in Texas
- Chief Joseph Scenic Highway, a 47-mile route in Wyoming
- Olympic Peninsula, a 572-mile route in northwestern Washington
- Scenic Route 100, a 138-mile route in Vermont
No matter which route you choose, do a little preparation ahead of time. Take your car in for basic car maintenance and pack healthy snacks for the road. Make a playlist of your favorite tunes, and bring a phone charger and/or extra camera batteries. Finally, don’t miss a moment of beauty on your road-trip adventure!